Category Archives: Burma/Myanmar

Myanmar: Aung San Suu Kyi and issues of stability

Myanmar’s perilous course to reform

by Tony Thomas

March 24, 2013

The goodwill flowed as Myanmar President Thein Sein visited Canberra last week (March 18). But there’s still the peril that a military coup by hardliners could reverse the country’s hard-won gains since 2011.

Thein Sein is a genuine visionary and reformer, despite the decades he spent rising to the rank of General in what was a brutal military regime. He put out his reformist credentials in Canberra.

“I know that for many years, the Australian Government and the Australian people were concerned over the situation of human rights in Myanmar. I’m grateful for that concern,” he said. “I’m here in part to explain the changes that have been taking place and ask for your country’s kind support and assistance in making our transitions to peace, democracy and prosperity a success.” (author’s emphasis)

Gratitude for trenchant criticism is extraordinary stuff from a regime which thumbed its nose at the world during 60 years of intolerant and incompetent rule.

The President also appeared to make a subtle invitation to dissenters to return in safety from Australia to Myanmar: “I hope that many who are from Myanmar who wish to return may now consider returning to help build our nation at this critical juncture.”

He also requested Australian support in removing the taints Myanmar has suffered in the United Nations, where it has been subject to numerous hostile (and previously justified) resolutions. A typical one came in December, 2011, calling on Myanmar to cease human-rights abuses, including impunity of the military over rapes and sexual violence. Thein Sein’s request went through without official response.

Next cab off the rank is (or might be) ex-felon, now cabinet adviser Aung San Suu Kyi, who joined with Foreign Minister Bob Carr in Yangon last June to say she would visit Australia this year. When? Foreign Affairs referred me to the Prime Minister’s Department, who referred me to the Myanmar Embassy, but no-one knows when.

The Australian government has reacted warmly to Thein Sein’s visit, even to the extent of increasing military cooperation with Myanmar. Prime Minister Gillard announced that the goal was to recognize and encourage Myanmar’s “genuine change”: “The Government has therefore decided that it will post a resident defence attaché to Myanmar to allow for greater engagement and dialogue with the Defence Force.”

Our defence attaché to Myanmar is based in Thailand and was permitted (by Australia) only a few visits a year to Myanmar. The new goal is to help the Myanmar army’s professionalism and backing of reform. Australia will also start working with the army there on peacekeeping and humanitarian relief, while retaining our arms embargo. Gillard also supported mysteriously-named “Track 2” activities. These refer to unofficial and informal contacts and meetings, involving academics, think tanks, journalists and officials not in their official capacities.

A case in point is the Australia Myanmar Institute (AMI), an unusually cooperative venture led by academics from Melbourne and Deakin Universities. The AMI was launched a Melbourne Town Hall conference on the same day as Thein Sein’s Canberra forum. Among the excellent line-up of speakers were ex-military and on-the-ground types capable of expert commentary on the new defence arrangements.

Dr John Blaxland is a graduate not only of Duntroon but of the Royal Thai Army Staff College. A 30-year army veteran, he was defence attache to Thailand and Myanmar from 2008-10. His arresting opening line was that, in 1947, the Australian Strategic Assessment held that Rangoon, not Bangkok, would become the hub of mainland South-East Asia.

“The military likes to talk to military, not to civilians,” he said. “When I was defence attaché there, I’d go to talk to them. I’d be in uniform, so were they. They imagined I was like-minded. Our ambassador, Michelle Chan, would come along to hear what we were saying, as well as making her own contribution of course. To push the bounds about reform and opening up the country, you can’t do that unless you are in there talking to them.”

Blaxland has some empathy with Myanmar military thinking. The country’s history is of invasions by Mongols, Chinese, Thais, British conquest (for 100 years) and Japan. Thai-Burmese relationships remain strained, and the military also fears balkanisation of Myanmar by ethnic breakaways. The latest scares involved the George Bush “axis of evil” speech of 2002, with fears of Burma being next in the US cross-hairs. (In fact the US did name Burma as one of the “Outposts of Tyranny” in 2005).

“Military history can’t be brushed aside, and allowing for the military’s very real fears about stability, I feel concern that the present reforms are not irreversible,” continued Blaxland, who also believes the Myanmar military’s shift of the capital from Rangoon to Naypyidaw in 2004 was partly a response to that perceived US threat, as well as insulating the government from the massed demonstrations possible in Yangon.

His view is that the motives for the military reforms were to get some breathing space from Chinese hegemony, lift Western sanctions and enjoy the unlimited wealth potential of modernization, as distinct from limited corrupt wealth in a closed society. The push gained impetus after the military’s humiliating non-performance on the Cyclone Nargis catastrophe of 2008. Further factors were Myanmar’s (successful) ambition to be ASEAN chair next year, and Myanmar’s obvious stagnation relative to Vietnam, Thailand and Laos/Cambodia.

“From Australia’s viewpoint, rapprochement with Myanmar meshes with our liberal impulses for human rights and democratization. We also see gains in trade, investment and particularly in resources development. Strategically, a stronger Myanmar would bolster ASEAN and regional stability, and hopefully permit a stronger Australian voice in the region,” Blaxland said.

“Our government is recognizing the need to talk to the army, which is an institution capable of winding back all the reforms, indeed of calling it all off. We can’t have any influence if we don’t talk to the army, to help it keep operating under a democratic civilian government. We are not an ex-colonial power, we are in the region and we can have a constructive role.”

Blaxland was asked about tensions in the army between hardliners and progressives. He says the hardliners had gained a lot of wealth and weren’t prepared to lose it. At each step in their promotion, their opportunities for wealth had increased. Currently, the young officers are the idealists. They also have the inspiration of Thein Sein, who “gets” the need for reform, even though he was the heir of hardline Senior General Than Shwe.

Dr Morten Pedersen is senior lecturer in International and Political Studies at UNSW/Canberra and the Defence Force Academy, and a former analyst for the International Crisis Group in Burma (2001-08). He told the conference that the scale of change is shown by Aung San Suu Kyi now chairing a government commission to investigate police violence. Moreover, a joint committee of government officials and ex-political prisoners are investigating the status of possible political prisoners still in gaol.

“Are the reforms irreversible? No, of course not,” Pedersen said. “Transitions are by definition highly uncertain. This, however, should not be a source of criticism, but rather a reminder to everyone to ‘buckle up’ and get down to the difficult business of consolidating the gains.”

Despite its conciliatory approach to date, the NLD seems intent on securing another landslide victory in 2015. Aung San Suu Kyi, who used to be unconcerned with power, now openly covets the presidency. These are clearly emotionally charged issues for the National League for Democracy, repressed for most of the past 20 years. “But it is hard to see how such aspirations can be reconciled with the need in a plural society for power-sharing, non-partisan politics, and not least the imperative of continued military support for the reform process,” Pedersen says.

To keep peace during the 2015 election campaigns, some kind of agreement will need to be reached protecting the core interests of both old and new elites. Leaving key constitutional clauses in place may be the only way to ease the fears of the military and pre-empt a backlash coup.

“Will the NLD accept this conundrum and share power to ensure incremental reform? If it doesn’t, turbulent waters should be expected,” he continued.

“Moderates on all sides are facing potential rebellion from hardline elements. The 2015 elections are likely to encourage a return to confrontational politics. Patience will wear thin among many who have not yet really benefited from the reform process. The potential for serious conflict in the medium term (which could put the entire reform process at risk), should not be underestimated.”

Thein Sein and speaker of the lower house, Shwe Mann, are driving the reforms from the top, he says. This is not about protecting military power and privileges, but about genuine regime change. The new government is well on its way not to consolidate military rule, but to unravel it.

“Dictatorships do not become democracies overnight; that type of change takes decades, if not generations. At this early stage, the important markers are the direction of change and the commitment to change – and neither of those is, in my assessment, in doubt,” Pedersen said.

He says that each success for the new government is making it harder for potential spoilers. The key has been the willingness by moderates on all sides to put differences aside and work together.

Aung San Suu Kyi has increasingly come under fire, even from her own supporters, for her perceived failure to challenge the government, especially on human rights issues.

The military is taking a cooperative approach, at least away from the battlefield, and has generally refrained from intervening in affairs outside of the area of national security.

Thein Sein’s government is negotiating seriously with the remaining hostile ethnic armies. Peace is essential if democracy is to take root. The government’s traction towards peace is its main protection against military interference in government affairs “Final success will depend on power and resource-sharing deals between the centre and the hostile provinces, which will require difficult compromises which I am not confident either side is quite prepared or able politically to make,” Pedersen said.

The government, whether military-based or in future under Aung San Suu Kyi, will also need to deliver gains in living standards. But economic benefits can take even longer to arrive than political makeovers. The central administration is weak and high-level initiatives fail to pass down the chain. In the freer environment, social unrest is already growing. Any escalation could invite military intervention and threaten the entire reformation.

The goal is to keep the military on-side with reform and eventually bring it under civilian control. Government policy failures could very easily create the conditions for another coup. Or, short of that, failures could bog down the country in ineffective change, as has occurred in many new democracies. Helping to ensure Myanmar’s reforms stay on track, is a key task for our government and sympathetic groups like the Australia Myanmar Institute, Pedersen said.

Chris Lamb, ambassador to Myanmar from 1986-89, was asked if the country’s constitution could be changed to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to stand for Presidency. He replied that a bill had already been proposed to review some aspects of the constitution, including the clause preventing Aung San Suu Kyi from standing. The bill came not from her own party but from one of the government parties.

“But to open up the entire constitution now to review would be very dangerous,” Lamb said.

Tony Thomas has given more than 50 public talks on modern Burma. He wrote of his heart-in-the-mouth experience of Burmese civil aviation in December

Film Review: “The Lady” — Aung San Suu Kyi

by Tony Thomas

April 26, 2012

For topicality, it’s hard to beat the biopic The Lady, on Burma’s democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

A French-English co-production, it hit Melbourne cinemas in mid-April, concurrently with Suu Kyi’s election to Parliament along with 43 other members of the National League for Democracy. That was virtually a clean sweep of the 45 seats in the by-election.

However, Luc Besson’s film ends in 2007, during the monks’ revolt, with Suu Kyi still under house arrest. The startling arrival of some democratization into Burmese life beganin mid-2011 and must have surprised Besson along with every other observer and participant.

The film covers the personal saga of Suu Kyi since her infancy in 1947, and through this depicts (in a few broad strokes) the state of her country. There have been complaints that the film overweights Suu Kyi’s family situation, but her predicaments have been all too real and all too grievous.

Michelle Yeoh as Suu Kyi not only looks convincingly like the protagonist but learned to speak Burmese fluently. Suu Kyi’s virtues include restraint and dignity and Yeoh follows suit, avoiding histrionics. If anything, this makes her quiet depiction doubly moving, and I confess to getting watery eyes on half a dozen occasions. Yeoh has an expressive face and can do much with little. There is a poetic quality about many of the lingering close-ups, and Eric Serra’s score is not grossly obtrusive.

For Besson, covering 60 years of Suu Kyi’s life in two hours was a problem, solved partly by jumping from her at three, to mother of two teenagers at 40.

The film opens with a bang as her father, independence hero General Aung San, pats his toddler goodbye and goes to his fateful cabinet meeting. Thugs from a rival faction burst in and cut him and his cabinet down with pistols and tommy-guns. (BBC TV recently screened an investigative piece suggesting a disgruntled British ex-ambassador assisted the assassination but the Besson film, wisely, leaves it unexplained).

We observe Suu Kyi and her Oxford-don husband Michael Aris (played by David Thewlis) in domesticity with their two ungainly teenaged boys. The film gathers pace when she heads back to Rangoon to tend her ailing mother in hospital. There she is confronted by military goons in pursuit of injured students from the March 1988 repressions. This is dramatic licence, as she arrived a bit later than the demonstrations, but the substance was real enough.

In general, I noticed few inaccuracies or blatant fictions in the film. Given the severe censorship in Burma, a lot of its modern history is fuzzy. One example is Suu Kyi’s confrontation with a squad of apparently out-of-control riflemen during her election tour at the town of Danubyu in 1989. This scene is a little ridiculous as the riflemen maintain their stance as per Goya’s “3rd of May” painting, even after she passes through them. But it’s a movie, after all.

One version in the accounts is that the captain in charge was within seconds of shooting her down (but a major intervened), another that the episode was a pantomime to shock her into subservience. The film not only plumps for the first version, but has Burma’s mad General Ne Win shoot the captain personally for over-provocation, which I am assured is nonsense.

The film has been criticized for portraying the generals as unmitigated (and ugly) villains. Unfortunately, the generals earned this, and ex-commander Than Shwe does have frog-like features. One problem I had was distinguishing him from his predecessor Ne Win. Certainly the film will go down badly with the current, democratizing group of ex-generals, currently putting up at least a front of benevolence in hopes that the West will lift all the long-standing sanctions.

Some of the most horrific scenes include the conditions at Insein Prison, Rangoon, where dissidents were dumped into kennels originally designed by the British for guard dogs. Another vignette, also true, is of army-men in the border wars using lines of prisoners as human mine-detectors.

The film was mostly shot in Thailand with interspersed Burmese footage, especially Rangoon’s magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda. To my eyes, the sets and crowds were convincing. The credits say some local footage was shot by young undercover filmers. Some of this breed got 20-plus years gaol terms after the 2007 revolt; one trusts they are among the nearly 70% of political prisoners recently released.

The main set, Suu Kyi’s lakeside bungalow, was elaborately re-created with even its axes in the correct alignment. Besson himself did some scouting and filming undercover in Burma. Yeoh met Suu Kyi in 2010 but on a return visit in 2011 was refused admission to the country.

The film never flags in interest, even though Suu Kyi’s 15 years in house arrest offers few opportunities for drama. Naturally Besson makes the most of her painful separation from husband and sons, and her gritty choice to stay in Burma rather than tend the bedside of her dying spouse in Oxford. (Hope I’m not spoiling the plot but this is all well-known).

One puzzle is that Besson chooses some rather bland extracts from the speech of Suu Kyi’s son Alex at Suu Kyi’s Nobel Peace Prize award in 1991. Punchier stuff is all there on YouTube. Incidentally, Suu Kyi donated her USD 1.3m prize to a Burmese health foundation. Does anyone know what Barack Obama did with his equivalent prize-money?

The viewer has a lot of absorb, including for example, a throwaway line about currency demonetization, which explains much of what the 1988 revolt was about.

I wasn’t aware that husband Michael Aris had an identical twin brother Anthony (also, would you believe, a scholar of Tibet) and the two on-screen, both played by Thewlis, had me cross-eyed in perplexity.

The film ends on a mildly high note in 2007, with Suu Kyi still in detention but enjoying rapport with a crowd of monks who have gathered outside her fence. Again I’m not sure this occurred but don’t really mind.

Tony Thomas filmed material for his Melbourne presentations on Burma on trips in 2009 and 2011.

My crash course in Burmese aviation

by Tony Thomas

December 29, 2012

Air travel within Burma is not without incident, as Australian survivors of the Christmas Day crash of an Air Bagan plane near Heho would agree.

This was the second crash of a Burmese domestic plane in 2012. In February, an Air KBZ ATR-72 took off from Heho and landed, more or less, at Thandwe airport. It bounced four times, veered off the runway to the left and ran into a pile of sand. The starboard propeller-ends sheered off and penetrated the fuselage, while the nose-wheel collapsed. No-one was hurt. The airline, motto “Flying Beyond Expectations”, had been operating only ten months.

I had my own brush with destiny on an Air Mandalay flight from Rangoon in late 2008, a flight which didn’t quite make it to Heho. Here’s the action replay, from my notes at the time:

Something is amiss. Three rows behind the pilots’ bulkhead, a small boy on the right is creating a commotion. He vomited, I assume, as I am two rows behind and can’t see him clearly. Hostesses bustle about. “Bitten by an insect,” someone suggests. “No, by a snake, and it’s loose in the cockpit,” says a humorist, inevitably. Things quieten down. The twin turbo-prop, a French-Italian built ATR-72 resembling a big Fokker Friendship, drones northwards.

More drama in Row C. The parents in Row B wave frantically for the hostesses, who are chatting at the back, with toilet door open to provide more shmoozing space. The child is howling again. Two hostesses trot forward, each lugging a fire extinguisher, which they deploy at Row C. There is a lot of hissing and a faint smell of burning plastic. Other passengers with a better view, report that there is/was a fire under the seat floor.

The plane turns around and the pilot announces that, for technical reasons, he is diverting to land at the nearest airport, Nay Pyi Daw. As we disembark at the rear, I sneak forward and take a good look at the child’s seat. On the floor is a 5cm gash where heat had melted the floor. Apparently under-floor wiring shorted and ignited, giving the small boy a hot-foot.

But this is only part of the drama. We have landed, literally out of the blue, at Senior General Than Shwe’s new capital 320km north of Rangoon. Even locals need to wait weeks for a permit into this closed city. It is for the military, the civil service, compliant diplomats (Aussie diplomats remain in Rangoon) and some service providers.

The new capital is a folly of Senior General Than Shwe, whose lucky number is 11. On 11/11/05, starting at 11am, a convoy of 1100 military trucks departed Rangoon taking 11 ministries to this new abode.

Nay Pyi Daw, as at 2008, is out of bounds for foreign tourists and even to photograph its highways, public buildings and apartments is a serious offence.

Now the small terminal at Nay Pyi Daw is crowded with our party of about 22 bicycle tourists plus their guides, marooned during a three-week trip around the country. It is clear that our plane is hors de combat and no rescue plane is in the offing. Across the way is an elaborate blue-roofed public building, newly built and brightly painted but devoid of activity.

We find photography protocols mysterious. The day before, I had visited the maternity hospital in Rangoon, a venerable building from the 1890s British raj. A friend had been born there in 1940 and I had volunteered to bring home for her some snaps of her birthplace. Some security people on the ground floor were friendly but their mood changed to official and personal alarm when I produced my little Canon Ixus.

“No, no, NO!” they shouted.

I took them outside to a half buried plaque on a brick wall, on which a governor’s lady wife had commemorated the opening a century earlier. I gestured for permission just to snap the little tablet. The guardians’ alarm was unabated: “No, NO, NO!!” As I was leaving, pic-less, someone took pity on me. I was led to understand that if I drove past in my (decrepit) taxi, there was nothing to stop me taking a pic from the taxi window, which I did.

Next morning at dawn we were at the Rangoon main airport. It combined civil and military elements. While we were hanging around in the wait-lounge, with police and some military people alongside, a tourist stepped outside to take pics of the runway and aircraft. I was too late to warn him and watched goggle-eyed for an horrific denouement. But neither the police nor the soldiers cared a jot. Other camera-wielding tourists joined their compatriot outside, followed lamely by myself.

That’s all by the way. At Naypyidaw, miraculously, our local tour guide whistled up a bus. After 12 hours on choked and rutted roads, the bus got us to our revised destination of Taunggyi.

Back in Australia, I googled up the official press release about the incident, published in New Light of Myanmar, the generals’ awful daily newspaper. What really happened to the Air Mandalay flight, according to an air ministry spokesman, was a minor fault in the overhead lighting, blown globe, something like that.

Internal airlines in Burma run about 30 planes, and their track record is not so good. Air Bagan, rival to Air Mandalay, is owned by cronies of the military and was on the US government’s sanctions list.

About six months earlier, in 2008, an Air Bagan ATR-72 was taking off from Putao. The pilot had the nose-wheel in the air when one engine failed and he put the plane down again, too late to stop by runway’s end. It overshot by 100m and finished up a broken-backed heap. The pilot got his arm broken and depending who you believe, a dozen passengers or none were slightly hurt.

The passengers, one of them told Reuters, were stuck inside the aircraft and cabin crew took a long time to open emergency doors: “We were all were in a state of panic. Many were crying. Oxygen was running out and breathing became difficult.”

In a mixture of candour and spin, the airline’s sales and marketing manager wrote: “Air Bagan took full responsibility very seriously for this occurrence. Please kindly understand such cases could occur to any airline and we are taking full responsibility of the cause.”

A year earlier, in 2007, a Bagan Air ATR-42 plane landed with its engine on fire at Heho Airport. No-one was hurt apart from a tourist injured while scrambling out an emergency exit.

The safety record of Myanma Airways, the national airline, is so bad that in 2008 Britain’s Foreign Office warned its staff against using it. This was prescient. In June, 2009, a 32-year-old Myanma Airways Fokker F28-4000 landed so hard at Sittwe airport that one wheel collapsed and the plane veered off the runway. The first officer and one passenger were injured. Col Nyan Tun Aung, the deputy minister for transport, was fed up. He announced that the next Air Myanma pilot to make a serious mistake would be “severely punished” and exhorted workers to inspect planes more carefully.

A partial crash record of Myanma Airways and its predecessors, Burma Airways and Union of Burma Airways, makes sobering reading.

August 1972: A Viscount overshot the runway on landing at Sittwe and skidded a kilometre before the undercarriage collapsed. No-one was hurt.

October 1985: a Fokker F27-600 cargo plane was trying to land at Putao, overshot and pancaked into soft ground a mile from the runway end. All four crew died.

June 1987: a Fokker F27-200 hit a mountain after taking off from Heho. All 45 on board were killed.

October 1987: a Fokker F27-500 hit a mountain when trying to land at Nyaung-u. All 49 on board died.

February 1989: a Fokker F27-600 was taking off from Rangoon, entered a fogbank, veered left and hit a tree 500ft from the runway. It then caught fire. Twenty-six of the 29 on board were killed.

October 1993: a Fokker F27-600 overshot the runway when landing at Kawthaung, and came to a stop in a creek. No-one was hurt but the plane was written off.

July 1996: a Fokker F28-600 was landing at Myeik Airport when it hit a rain squall. It undershot the airstrip by 800 feet, ran over construction works and fell into a 4ft deep excavation. Eight of the 49 on board were killed.

January 1998: a Fokker F27 was taking off from Thandwe Airport when an engine failed. It swerved off the runway, hit an embankment and caught fire. Sixteen out of the 45 on board were killed.

June 1998: a Fokker F27-600 took off from Myitkina but failed to make it to Putao. It hit terrain and all four crew were killed.

August 1998: a Fokker F27 hit a hill while trying to land at Tachilek airstrip. All 36 on board were killed.

July 1999: a Fokker F27 on a mainly-cargo flight, hit a cloud-covered ridge while trying to land at Sittwe. The four crew and eight passengers were killed.

August 1999: a landing Fokker F28-1000 skidded off a wet runway at Rangoon and came to rest with the nose-wheel collapsed.

August, 2007: a Fokker F28-4000 misjudged its landing at Dawei airport and overshot the runway. The nose-wheel collapsed when it dug into soft ground. No-one was hurt.

Tony Thomas flew internally in Burma in 2011 without incident.

Burma’s inspirational political prisoners

Prison Burma

by Tony Thomas

February 7, 2012

Burma’s inspirational political prisoners

On a hot Saturday afternoon in Rangoon early last year, I invited myself into the headquarters of the National League for Democracy (NLD). I wanted to shoot some film to spice up the talks I give around Melbourne on Aung San Suu Kyi. I had come straight from filming at the White Bridge, a levee across Inya Lake. It is now dubbed the “Red Bridge” because of an horrific massacre of students there in March 1988.

A receptionist told me to leave, and while I was trying to explain, another NLD person arrived, laughed, and told me to stay and film whatever I wanted.

An elderly but sprightly gent then emerged from a rear door, on his way out to the street. I recognized him as U Win Tin, “Aunty” Suu’s NLD ex-secretary who had re-emerged in 2008 after 19 years in Burma’s vicious prisons, from his 60th to 79th year. Among his privations was being held without bedding in a cell originally built by the British to house a guard dog.

It is typical of such prisoners that on release they return to activism, risking further terms inside.

As we chatted I was surprised at his merry disposition and his fluency in English (I hadn’t learnt he was a graduate in English literature). He was willing to say a few words on film, at which my camera announced Chip Full. He couldn’t hang around, and disappeared.

The regime’s release of about 550 political prisoners in January this year (2012) was a surprise, after previous token releases of a dozen or two. However, the regime warns it will not release the rest of its political prisoners, numbering 1000 or more. Those already released can be re-gaoled if they step out of line.

Many of those now released have extraordinary histories, remaining unbowed and charitable despite crushing sentences ranging up to 104 years. Here’s one of them:

Nilar Thein, now 40, was a 16-year-old when the 1988 student-led uprisings began. The main cause was the generals’ demonetization of banknotes, wiping out students’ savings. The new (but hard-to-get) notes were in 45 and 90 kyat denominations, nine being General Ne Win’s lucky number.

Nilar saw from her doorstep the violence against other students. By 1991 she was targeted and put inside for two months, on charges I can’t ascertain.

In late 1996 Nilar was again with students protesting at police brutality. She defied instructions from a police commander, who ordered his troops to beat her. The details are confused but she slapped the commander’s face. That was certainly a bridge too far. She got seven years for demonstrating and three years for the slap.

Her story intertwines with that of Kyaw Min Yu (“Jimmy Ko”), another student leader who was arrested during the 1988 uprising and served 16 years to early 2005. They met in Tharyarwaddy Prison and after their release, married in May 2006. Their girl Phyu Nay Kyi Min Yu ( “Sunshine”) was born in May 2007.

Food and fuel price inflation (200-500%) led to new protests and three months later Jimmy was among the first 13 leaders arrested, along with Nilar’s mother, who was released soon after. With almost suicidal bravery, Nilar took Jimmy’s place as a demonstration leader next day. From there she went into hiding with Sunshine. She ranked fifth on the military’s ‘wanted’ list, with a price on her head.

Moving among supporters’ hideouts, she gave mobile phone interviews to expatriate and Western media. Here’s an excerpt (translated):

I am sitting in the corner of a small room where I can’t see the sun or be touched by the wind…Friends tell me about the meeting between Jimmy and our daughter (during a prison visit). I wanted to go to prison myself to see Jimmy and so I could see my daughter who is more than seven months old. I left her when she was four months…

I have had lots of close escapes. Once when she was still with me I was hiding in a small attic and I heard the police downstairs. I said to my daughter, “Don’t make any noise if you want to stay with mummy! Please don’t make any noise!” I was breast-feeding. She looked up as though she understood everything and she stayed quiet. That was a close one …

Soon after, she gave up the baby to her in-laws – her own parents had disowned her, probably under duress.

She also arranged press interviews:

I love my daughter, but I also need to consider mothers fleeing with their children and hiding in jungles, such as in Karen State because of the civil war. My suffering is very small compared to theirs.

Compared to their children, my daughter still has a secure life with her grandparents, even though I’m not there… Only if we end this bad system will the future of Burma’s people, including my daughter’s, be bright. I love my daughter. I had to leave her, but I believe she will later understand why.

Nilar was caught on September 10, 2008, after 12 months on the run. On November 11 she and Jimmy were sentenced to 65 years, in separate prisons, on 22 charges including libelling the regime to foreign powers and causing public mischief.

The prison regime ranges from brutal tortures to malicious neglect. The conditions for women politicals involve squalor, poor food and water, denial of hygiene, refusal of medical treatments, and solitary confinement.

Red Cross and other international concern for Nilar probably protected her somewhat. But she smuggled out complaints which included harassments such as guards spying on women bathing.

At one stage she was vomiting daily from a peptic ulcer. The only advice from the prison doctor was to meditate. Two prisoners who gave Nilar religious books were put in fetters for 15 days, Nilar’s contacts reported.

The remote prisons, at Thayet (Nilar) and Taunggyi (Jimmy), created special hardship for their families trying to visit and bring food and medicine.

Remarkably, Sunshine at the age of three gave a video interview which is incorporated in a US activist’s documentary, Into the Current. She recites a patriotic poem, and when asked, “What do you wish for when you pray to Buddha?”, she replies, “May papa and mum and me be together soon.”

The film was released last November (2011) and only two months later, on January 13, Sunshine got her wish. The small family is now united, and Nilar says she is in good health. Sunshine is five. Nilar continues to agitate for release of other politicals: “If all of them are released, that will be a beautiful image for all of us.”